Doctrinal differences between LCMS & WELS: A concise comparison

What happened to the Arians in that trope by which they made Christ into a merely nominal God? What has happened in our own time to these new prophets regarding the words of Christ, “This is my body,” where one finds a trope in the pronoun “this,” another in the verb “is,” another in the noun “body”? What I have observed is this, that all heresies and errors in connection with the Scriptures have arisen, not from the simplicity of the words, as is almost universally stated, but from neglect of the simplicity of the words, and from tropes or inferences hatched out of men’s own heads.

—Martin Luther
Bondage of the Will, J. J. Pelikan, Oswald, H. C., Lehmann, H. T., ed.;
Luther’s Works, Vol. 33: Career of the Reformer III; Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1999, p. 163

Major differences between Missouri and Wisconsin

Doctrinal divisions between the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) include two long-standing differences in official statements:

Other possible differences are either more recent or less clear.

Church and ministry

For an example of what may be another long-standing difference between the two synods, many within the LCMS hold the WELS doctrine of doctrine of church and ministry to be in conflict with the position adopted by the LCMS. The differences between their interpretation and the WELS doctrine of church and ministry arise from different ways to understand a few passages of Scripture.

Acknowledgement: Much of the material of the posts on church and ministry arose from discussions with Daniel Gorman, Paul Jecklin, Rolf Preus, and David Jay Webber. The opinions expressed are my own.


As Luther observed, doctrinal divisions do not arise from ambiguity in Scripture but rather from insufficient regard for the passages that teach on the topics of controversy. Every article of the faith is directly derived from perfectly clear passages of Scripture. That is why the history of theology is only helpful to the extent that it points back to the word of God.

It does not follow that no preparation is needed. In evaluating doctrinal differences, prayer, meditation on the Scriptures, and the cross are essential.

Shining the lamp on church & ministry scatters the darkness of human interpretation

Whoever stands on Scripture no longer needs any man as interpreter; he has enough in the Holy Spirit, even if he is a simple child. If that is not established as fact, then the witness of Scripture about its own clarity and efficacy falls down. If we necessarily use the fathers to acquire the correct understanding of Scripture, then it is no longer true that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet, that it makes wise the simple, and makes us more learned than all our teachers; then consistency demands that we become Catholic and take the pope as our sole infallible interpreter of Scripture.

—August Pieper

Christ’s teaching about the sacrament of the altar would be too complicated for most Christians to know whether they were eating his true body, at least if all the disagreements over the issue were any indication. Reformed theologians have sown the confusion with myriads of arguments against the plain meaning of Christ’s simple words, “Take, eat; this is my body.” The problem is not that the words are so unclear that an interpreter is needed. The problem is an unwillingness to listen to a clear word from God.

Similarly, the doctrine of church and ministry appears very confusing, with various arguments about how to interpret the Lutheran confessions and other writings of influential Lutheran fathers. For example, some look to the confessions to shed light on the Scriptures instead of first attending to what the clear Scriptures say and then using that doctrine to ask whether the confessions agree. Since the Lutheran confessions were written in the latter spirit, that is the best way to interpret them. The word of God really is the only lamp needed for our feet.

That does not mean all passages of Scripture are equally clear. Indeed, some passages require an infallible interpreter to be understood. The clear passages of Scripture play that role by illuminating many of those that are less clear.

For another example of confusion arising from appeals to the traditions of the elders, although some claim that Walther’s understanding contradicts the teaching of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), theologians of that fellowship have seen him in essential agreement. Does believing what the Scriptures say about church and ministry require the Christian to sort out those issues by specializing in historical Lutheran dogmatics, or does Scripture ever speak clearly on the subject?

What Scripture teaches about church and ministry is actually much simpler than it first appears. That is because completely clear passages of the New Testament say that Jesus gave the keys and priesthood of God’s kingdom to believers, not to any organization or corporate entity (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:17-20; John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9), as will now be seen from the texts themselves.

The gift of the keys, the authority to condemn and forgive sinners in the name of Christ, is given to each individual believer with the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, the communion of believers (Matthew 16:16-19). Christ gave the same authority to every communion of two or three believers joining for worship in his name (Matthew 18:17-20). That church of two or three is not an external organization to which the authority is given but rather a communion of believers possessing the keys, consistent with Matthew 16:16-19. When two or three believers gather somewhere to pray in Christ’s name, they constitute the church in that location, and Christ is there in the midst of them.

Jesus’ concept of a church as a communion of believers this contrasts sharply with attempts to view churches as visible gatherings that include unbelievers. The Reformed see churches as visible organizations, complete with legal status and property. Such organizations, including unbelievers as well as believers, are only churches in a figurative sense. In the literal sense, the only sense in which the word is used in the New Testament, a church is a communion of believers. It cannot be a visible organization since it does not include unbelievers. That the New Testament uses the word “church” to mean “communion of believers” is confirmed by comparing the above passages with clear passages teaching that, without using the words “keys” or “church,” the keys of the kingdom are given to the believers (John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9).

The fact that the “you” is plural in John 20:21-23 and 1 Peter 2:9 entails that the keys and priesthood of the kingdom are given to believers, not to any organization. The plural “you” must be heard as in usual language, not as somehow implying an organization that can only act as a unit. Ordinary usage is readily understood: just as you husbands are to love your wives (Ephesians 5:25), those of you receiving the Holy Spirit are to forgive and retain sins (John 20:21-23) and proclaim the saving works of the God who called you out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9). There is no more an idea of an organization consisting of recipients of the Holy Spirit than there is an organization consisting of husbands.

There are many opportunities for believers to announce God’s excellencies privately and publicly, with degrees of organization varying with the circumstances. Since Scripture nowhere specifies rigid church structures or rules of order for using the keys and the priesthood, believers are free to organize themselves however is most expedient in their current environment for the proclamation of the gospel. The Spirit leads believers to come together in Christ’s name not only as local churches but also as synodical churches in some cases (Acts 15).

These churches, as communions of believers, are not the organizations that they correspond to since such organizations also include unbelievers. On the basis of the way the New Testament uses the word for “church,” Pieper teaches that in the strict, literal sense, a church, whether local or synodical, being a community of believers, contains no unbelievers. However, the visible gatherings of a church include unbelievers who hypocritically claim to be believers. Pieper explains that Lutherans call such visible gatherings “churches,” not in the literal sense but only by synecdoche.

Just as the local churches must not be confused with local organizations, synodical churches must not be confused with synodical organizations. The churches, whether local or synodical, are communions of believers, but the corresponding organizations also include unbelievers. Believers retain the freedom and responsibility to use the keys and the priesthood regardless of how they come together as local or synodical churches.

Anyone who would impose restrictions on how believers use the binding key of the law and the freeing key of the gospel has the burden to prove the restrictions are clearly required by Scripture. Piling up historical arguments and quotations of the Lutheran fathers falls far short of that. For instance, to prove that a synodical church may not choose seminary professors to publicly teach the gospel or district presidents to publicly supervise pastors, what would be needed is a passage of Scripture that clearly forbids believers from joining together as a synodical church for calling ministers to retain and forgive sins on their behalf.

Teaching on church and ministry becomes hopelessly complicated once we leave the words of the above passages to make our own rigid definitions and judgments on what is and what is not a visible church, as if the keys were given to an organization as opposed to the communion of believers. For example, some Lutherans outside of the WELS fellowship have claimed that synods cannot be churches because they do not administer the sacrament of baptism. In asserting that synodical communions of believers are not churches, they reveal that their concept of a church differs from that of the New Testament. That is because the  strict, New Testament definition of a church as a communion of believers rules out the possibility of unbelievers in synodical churches in exactly the same way that it rules out the possibility of unbelievers in local churches. Baptism and other marks of the church help us distinguish churches from congregations of unbelievers but do not define what the church is.

Other errors about church and ministry are also corrected by the passages of Scripture clearly stating that the keys and priesthood of the kingdom are given to the church (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:17-20), in other words, to the believers (John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9). Indeed, “As long as we keep the truth that the Church is the communion of saints in mind, everything that Scripture tells us about the Church will fall into its proper place and can be readily understood. At the same time all the false notions which men have entertained and still entertain concerning the Church are readily exposed” (WELS statement on church and ministry).

21 August 2014. Missing link added 13 November 2014.

Stand on Scripture, not on an interpretation of Scripture

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

Psalm 119:9-16 (ESV)

Was the original purpose of the Lutheran confessions to serve as the lens through which the Scriptures must be understood? Are the Scriptures so ambiguous that they require authoritative human interpretation? No, the Lutheran confessions were derived directly from the light of the Scriptures, not from previous confessions or from quotations of church fathers. In fact, the Lutheran confessions do not offer yet another interpretation of Scripture, as Franz Pieper pointed out (Christian Dogmatics, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 1950, Vol. 1, p. 367):

The thought common in our day that all church bodies stand on Scripture and differ only in their interpretation of it is not in accordance with the facts. The Roman Catholic Church does not stand on Scripture, but on the papal interpretation of Scripture. The Reformed Churches, as far as they differ from the Lutheran Church, do not stand on Scripture, but on Zwingli’s, Calvin’s, etc. interpretation of Scripture. The Lutheran Church, however, does not stand on interpretation of Scripture, but on Scripture itself. This is not a mere assertion. It can be proved by induction in the face of universal contradiction.

The reason no human interpretation is needed is that Scripture interprets itself (ibid., pp. 363-364):

Luther is unalterably convinced that God gave Holy Scripture such a form that the entire Christian doctrine is revealed and submitted in passages which need no ‘exegesis’ (exegesis in the sense of removing obscurities). He who would determine the meaning of the clear passages through still other passages engages in a work of interminable adjustments, makes the entire Scriptures uncertain and obscure, and converts them into an inextricable chaos. Yes, there is the rule: ‘One passage must be explained by another,’ but, as Luther adds immediately: ‘Namely, a doubtful and obscure passage… must be explained by means of a clear and certain passage.

An author of the Formula of Concord similarly explained what it means for Scripture to interpret Scripture (Chemnitz, M., J. A. O. Preus, trans., The Lord’s Supper, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 1979, pp. 68-69):

For Scripture, especially when it treats of dogmas, because it is not of private interpretation, interprets itself either in the same passage or in other passages were the same dogma is touched on. Because of this, the same dogma is fully treated and repeated in various passages of Scripture in such a way that no one can dream up his own personal interpretation but must derive it from Scripture itself. For the same dogma is repeated on the basis of either the same or similar words which have the same meaning and set forth the same teaching, so that the simple, proper, and natural meaning of the passage may be confirmed… Or if something in one passage is too brief or obscure because of the puzzling nature of the figures of speech, Scripture will explain and interpret it in other passages where the same doctrine is repeated more fully, clearly, and openly, using proper, clear, natural, and commonly understood words.

With confessions derived from the word of God alone, it might be thought that Lutherans would not cite human authorities as proof texts instead of clear passages of Scripture. However, these words of August Pieper are as true today as they were in the beginning of the twentieth century (Mark Braun, “The Wauwatosa Gospel,” in Lord Jesus Christ, Will You Not Stay: Essays in Honor of Ronald Feuerhahn on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, pp. 131-152, 2002, available from Concordia Publishing House, p. 24 of this Charis article):

This caused people to think that the point that was presented or discussed was sufficiently established by the quotations from Luther and the fathers without a study of Scripture itself.  It even led to this that later one did not stop with quoting Luther and the old fathers, but now one also quoted Walther and other celebrities for proof of the correct doctrine. The subject of study for new essays became not so much Scripture as the essays in the old synodical reports, and quotations from them were frequently used instead of proof from Scripture.

As August Pieper warned, implicit trust in any human authority for the correct interpretation of Scripture is idolatry leading to additional errors (ibid., p. 25):

We intend in the future to pursue scriptural study even more faithfully than before. . . . We submit in advance to the least word of Scripture that opposes us, no matter from whom it may come. But we submit to no man, be his name Luther or Walther, Chemnitz or Hoenecke, Gerhard or Stoeckhardt, so long as we have clear Scripture on our side. . . . We esteem the fathers highly, far higher than ourselves as far more learned and more devout than we are. Therefore, we want to use them, particularly Luther, as guides to Scripture, and to test their doctrines a hundred times before we reject them. But authorities equal to Scripture or opposed to Scripture they may never become for us, or we shall be practicing idolatry. . . . We renounce this authority-theology anew. It causes so much damage to the church. It is unfaithfulness to the Lord; slavery to men; it brings errors with it.

For extreme examples of inappropriate appeals to human authority, some say the Lutheran confessions require believing in the Perpetual Virginity and practicing communion weekly even though they cannot provide anything resembling Scriptural proof. They believe aspects of the confessions that are not expositions of any Scripture, on the direct authority of the confessions. That indicates severe misunderstanding of the historical context and purpose of the confessions as solemn affirmations of Scriptural teaching. A proper response is, “Where does the Bible say that?”

A less extreme but more common example is assuming the Lutheran fathers must have based their teaching about some topic on Scripture instead of carefully examining what the Scriptures actually say on the topic. Taking Luther’s or the synod’s word for it is never acceptable when it comes to doctrine, not even on a busy day.

The fathers should not be cited as final authorities, saying something like, “August Pieper said so, so you should believe it, too.” At the same time, they can be cited profitably, for instance, “See August Pieper for the exegetical details” or “I realized this thanks to Chemnitz’s insistence on the clear meaning of those Scriptures, which I had somehow overlooked.”

In discussions with other Lutherans, there is a time to appeal to the confessions as secondary authorities: when there is mutual agreement about their meaning. When there is not, it is usually counterproductive to spend much time arguing about what they really say, especially since we have no promise about their perspicuity. It is then time to say, “Look, the Teacher himself said so in clear language, so it’s not really up for interpretation.” He promises to enlighten us with his own words.

Christian complaint

Job’s Lament – versified Job 3 raises the question of the role of complaint in the prayer life of the Christian.

Complaint, as opposed to apathetic resignation on one hand and unbelief on the other, comes from the apparent contradiction between the evil experienced and the promises of Christ. In complaint, the theologian of the cross clings to those promises until the attack abates (Psalm 119), not letting his opponent go until receiving the promised blessing.

Further reading: Living by Faith: Justfication and Sanctification by Oswald Bayer

Homologoumena: The 20-book NT canon

A plan for reading the homologoumena in three months has been added to the Dawning Realm page on worship. Its lists of chapters to read are updated daily. To use the plan in family devotions, read one chapter in the morning and the other in the evening according to the month.

As those books of the New Testament that the early church universally recognized as apostolic, the homologoumena contain the entire Christian doctrine. Useful information on canonicity of the seven disputed books of the New Testament is provided by F. Pieper (1950) Christian Dogmatics, Volume I, Concordia Publishing House.


The homologoumena in eight months or eight weeks

Quick introduction to the gospel accounts

Irenaeus: Protestant or Catholic?

Even in the second century, before it was seen that even the bishops of the churches planted by the apostles could teach contrary to the writings of the apostles, apostolic succession was not relied on apart from Scripture since heretics claimed their own lines of succession. Because heterodox congregations insisted that the meaning of Scripture could only be uncovered with the aid of oral traditions they allegedly received from the apostles, St. Irenaeus, the most important second-century theologian,1 (p. 1) called Scripture rather than simply the church “the ground and pillar of our faith”:

That the apostles preached that Gospel and then subsequently wrote it down is important for Irenaeus, as it will later enable him to appeal to the continuous preaching of the Gospel in the Church, the tradition of the apostles. It is also important to Irenaeus to specify that what they wrote has been handed down (“traditioned”) in the Scriptures, as the ground and pillar of our faith. While Paul had spoken of the Church as being the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), in the need to define more clearly the identity of the Church Irenaeus modifies Paul’s words so that it is the Scripture which is the “ground and pillar” of the faith, or, he states later, it is the Gospel, found in four forms, and the Spirit of life that is “the pillar and foundation of the Church” (AH 3.11.8). It is by their preaching the Gospel that Peter and Paul lay the foundations for the Church, and so the Church, constituted by the Gospel, must preserve this deposit intact.2 (p. 39)

As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Article IV) asserted against the papacy, the authority of this church is the consensus of “all the prophets,” who bear witness that “whoever believes in [Jesus] will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).

If his high view of Scripture made Irenaeus too Protestant for modern Catholics, his high view of the sacraments made him too Catholic for modern Protestants. He knew nothing of the Zwinglian divorce between Word and Sacrament that would be officially granted by the Council of Trent. According to Irenaeus, the rule of faith needed to understand Scripture is in believers, having been received through baptism (Against the Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 9). Since he was a disciple of Polycarp, in turn a disciple of John the Elder, that conviction was probably derived from if not identical to the doctrine represented in the writings of the latter. His Gospel says only those in whom Jesus’ cleansing Word remains will know the truth (John 8:31-32; 15:3). Likewise, he assured his “little children” that if the message/anointing they had received in the beginning remained in them, it would testify against the proto-Gnostic teachings (1 John 2:24-27). The concept of receiving the rule of faith in baptism may precede even John’s writings: an earlier “exhortation to put away evil and to receive the implanted Word is freighted with baptismal imagery” 3 (p. 65) (James 1:21). Not having been born of water through the resurrection to a living hope (John 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3; 3:21), the Gnostic opponents of Irenaeus took Scripture passages out of context to interpret them contrary to the gospel (Book 1, Chapter 8). By contrast, the orthodox of the early church recognized the canonicity of the genuine New Testament books on the basis of the baptismal creeds that had originated with Christ before the doctrine of the apostles was committed to writing.4 This use of the creeds confessed in baptism both to acknowledge the authority of Scripture and to interpret it was appropriate since baptism fully reveals the Triune God.4


Reference List

1. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies: Book 1 (The Newman Press, New Jersey, 1992).

2. J. Behr, The Way To Nicaea (SVS Press, Crestwood, 2001).

3. D. P. Scaer, James the Apostle of Faith: A Primary Christological Epistle for the Persecuted Church (Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, 1994).

4. D. P. Scaer, “Baptism as church foundation,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 67, 109-129 (2003). Download the PDF file.


Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.